Climate Change, Environment, Europe, Headlines

CLIMATE CHANGE: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

Julio Godoy

BERLIN, Feb 7 2007 (IPS) - The causes of global warming have been established firmly by world scientists, and the solutions set out. The question now is, who will implement these solutions.

In its newest assessment released last week in Paris, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that human-made greenhouse gases emissions, especially carbon dioxide arising from burning of fossil fuels such as mineral oil and coal are the main cause of global warming.

The report warned that global warming can provoke innumerable climate catastrophes such as stronger hurricanes, hotter summers, warmer winters, further rising of sea levels, droughts, and melting of glaciers.

The most industrialised countries of the world – Canada, the United States, European Union countries, Russia, Japan, and Australia – are the world’s largest per capita emitters of carbon dioxide.

The IPCC report implicitly offers the main answer to the problem – creating a post-fossil fuel economy by improving efficiency in production and use of electricity and heating, and increasing use of renewable energy sources.

These solutions are already being applied here and there in the industrialised world, though not with the resolution and single-mindedness needed to cope with the problem.

Take Germany. Since 2000, when a law to promote renewable energy resources was passed, it has multiplied use of such sources such as the sun, wind and biomass.

According to German official figures, renewable energy sources generated well over 200 billion kilowatts per hour (kWh) in 2006, which corresponds to consumption of some 10 million households – roughly a quarter of the German population.

This generation met about 8 percent of annual energy consumption.

With considerable state subsidies, Germany has become the leading country in use of renewable energy. It has an installed capacity of more than 18,000 megawatts of wind energy.

Germany also has a large surface for collection of solar energy, with more than six million square metres of solar cells in use. This is 40 percent of the solar panel surface area in all the European Union.

In 2006, renewable energy resources allowed Germany to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by more than 10 million tonnes. The government estimates that this reduction in emissions thanks to renewables will rise to 120 million tonnes by 2012.

Electricity generation is the highest source of greenhouse gas emissions in Germany, some 350 million tonnes per year. In 2005 it represented 40 percent of the total emissions of 872 million tonnes.

The German government is also providing subsidies and cheap credits through state banks to house owners to improve efficiency in domestic heating, and through better insulation.

But some positive policies are being countered by other measures. Last year the government authorised construction of a new power station fuelled with brown coal, considered the most inefficient fossil combustible of all.

The new power station, presently under construction at Grevenbroich-Neurath near Düsseldorf, about 600 km southeast of Berlin, is expected to come into line in 2010, with a life expectancy of 40 years.

For environmental activists, the government’s support for this new brown coal power station is incompatible with the objective of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

“In environmental and efficiency terms, brown coal is the worst of all combustibles,” Hermann Scheer, congress representative for the German Social Democratic Party, and one of the leading activists in favour of renewable energy sources told IPS.

“Alone the eight largest German power stations fuelled with brown coal emit more than 145 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (roughly 16 percent of total German emissions), and constitute one of the filthiest German contributions to global warming.”

The German government is also opposing plans by the European Commission (EC), to impose a binding average maximum limit by 2012 of carbon dioxide emissions for new automobiles made in Europe, of 120 grams per kilometre.

The present average value is 160 grams per kilometre. The German auto industry has admitted that it will not satisfy its own objective of constructing cleaner cars by 2008 with an average emission of 140 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometre.

Transport is the second-largest emitter of carbon dioxide in Europe after energy generation.

“It is a sad fact that the European automobile industry will not satisfy its own commitments,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said earlier this week. But she refused to accept the EC proposal.

“We cannot introduce a general, unique standard for all automobiles,” she said in what was seen as a defence of German automobile industry giants such as Mercedes Benz and BMW, which produce powerful, heavy fuel-consuming vehicles.

The German automobile industry has so far failed to adopt new technologies in use in other countries, such as hybrid motors that combine traditional fuel-driven engines with electric batteries.

The German government is also pressing for an annual carbon dioxide emission trade rights plan for the local industries limit for 2008-2012 of 482 million tonnes, against 453 million tonnes proposed by the EC.

Germany is finding alternatives to foreign dependence on energy, but not it seems, for the sake of the atmosphere.

Germany, and most other leading industrialised countries in Europe, have set themselves generous emission targets in the emissions trading scheme.

Since 2005, some 12,000 large industrial companies in the EU are able to buy and sell permits to release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. If they emit less than their quota, they can sell; if more, they have to buy pollution rights from others. This is one of the provisions under the Kyoto Protocol intended to limit emissions and therefore climate change.

High allowances to industry reduce incentives to limit emissions.

France has launched a major programme to introduce bio fuel to replace gasoline and diesel. But it continues to neglect renewable energy sources such as the sun and wind. France has an installed solar cells capacity of 115 megawatts, a sixth of Germany’s.

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